John Cohen believes he has one of the deepest pitching staffs in college baseball.
Although several young players will be depended on especially to anchor the bullpen, Cohen is confident that health and talent outweigh experience.
The eight-year coach told the media at MSU's fan day that 20 Bulldog pitchers have hit 90 on the gun, eight have thrown 93 or better, and four have eclipsed 95.
One of those pitchers tossing upwards of 95 will determine whether the staff will take the jump from above average to elite. Dakota Hudson is the favorite to serve as MSU's friday night starter, and if the junior can duplicate his performance from summer ball in the Cape Cod, he'll give Starkville its first SEC ace pitcher since Chris Stratton in 2012.
Hudson owns three pitches that are as solid as any in the SEC but the key will be consistency and better command. He struck out 26 last season but walked 11 in 16.2 innings. His 4.32 ERA was nothing to get excited about, but let's not forget that Chris Stratton struggled until his junior season as well. However nothing is a guarantee. There's a lot of pressure on Hudson to live up to the hype, and he needs to for MSU to live up to its top 15 preseason ranking.
The other top candidates for weekend starting roles according to Cohen are also juniors -- Austin Sexton and lefty Daniel Brown. Sexton isn't a big strikeout guy but you can count on him to consistently throw strikes. I compare him to former MSU standout Kendall Graveman. Brown is another velocity guy with swing-and-miss stuff like Hudson. Although he was up and down in his first season, it sounds like he's turned the corner and finally started to figure it out.
A wildcard to watch for a weekend starting spot is junior Zac Houston. Houston is the flame thrower of the staff and tossed 98 or better multiple times over the fall and spring. He pitched solely out of the pen last season but Cohen said Houston is more comfortable right now in a starting role. He said Houston is throwing better than anybody on the club right now. Houston finished last year strong down the stretch in SEC play. I'm still not convinced he's a guy that can command his pitches for 5+ innings consistently, but if he is, that's a game changer for this team.
The bullpen is where it gets a little bit murkier. Several players are in contention to pitch major innings. We'll have to see which of those players will settle into weekend roles and which ones will contend to start during the midweek.
Junior Vance Tatum and freshman Ethan Small will likely be the long relief lefties out of the pen but either could end up starting on Tuesday's or Sunday's after everything shakes out. Tatum pitched a ton of innings out of the pen last season and also started eight games. His 5.50 ERA will have to improve if he wants a lot of playing time. There are a lot of freshmen vying to take his spot.
I already mentioned Small who everybody raved about during spring scrimmages. He's just one of several talented freshmen who will contribute this season. The lefties are especially promising. Along with Small, Jared Padgett and Kale Breaux are the likely candidates for playing time. Padgett in particular can be dominant out of the pen with an extremely nasty curveball. I could see Cohen bringing him in for left-on-left situations or to finish off a 0-2/1-2 count, if he still utilizes that strategy.
Noah Hughes is a right-handed freshman who is also another strikeout pitcher. He could start or at least pitch a lot of innings on Tuesday's. The rest of MSU's right arms out of the pen will depend on how some of the veterans recover from injury. Paul Young, Myles Gentry, and Jacob Billingsley will all have roles assuming they are back to 100 percent. The outlook on Young and Billingsley sounds more positive than Gentry.
Another element this staff has going for it are position players that will chip in on the mound. The most obvious candidate for that is outfielder Reid Humphreys. He's a velocity guy that will pitch at the end of games and possibly close on Friday's or Saturday's.
All in all, I do think this staff is the most talented Cohen has inherited. But it is scary that so many youngsters will log major innings in the bullpen. Not only that, but some of the starters like Hudson and Brown have to take major steps forward from last season for MSU to compete in the SEC.
I think there's no doubt that the pitching is the strength of this year's team, but there is huge boom-or-bust potential. We'll know a lot more after the diamond dogs play five games in five days to open the season against Florida Atlantic, South Dakota State, and Memphis. Until then all of this is just speculation, some of the players I mentioned could end up redshirting, and others I didn't mention may come out and surprise.
Playing in a big park like Dudy Noble -- like every season -- the pitchers will determine how far this team will go.